I recently had the pleasure of interviewing HUC faculty member, Dr. Isa Aron about her newest book.
sfs: Congratulations on the publication of your new book, Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary (with Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman. Alban Institute, 2010).
sfs: The title really caught my eye. Why would you want to move a congregation away from “functional”?
IA: “Functional” synagogues are filled with congregants who view synagogue membership as equivalent to membership in the auto club. They pay dues in exchange for a series of services which include worship, religious school, and clergy officiation at life cycle events. Perfectly functional for an organization, in that it can balance its budget and have a well-maintained and even aesthetic facility; but not especially inspiring for a Jewish religious organization. In contrast, members of “visionary” synagogues see themselves as part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. In order to transform a group of isolated consumers into a holy community, the synagogue must also have the other characteristics of visionary synagogues, such as a participatory culture, reflective leadership, and an innovative disposition.
sfs: In the first chapter, you mention a book, Good to Great which highlights corporations which have proven their success by earning lots of money. How do you measure a congregations success?
IA: For us success means the percentage of active participants. Not the overall size—the congregation may be large or small–but rather: How many of its members come to services on Shabbat? How many children continue their education past bar/bat mitzvah? How many adults engage in ongoing learning or social justice projects? As one rabbi in our study noted: “I’m not impressed if the parking lot is full of different cars every Shabbat. I want to know: how many of the same cars are there week after week?”
sfs: I’ve read many articles that show that American Jews are not joining congregations nearly as much as their parent’s generation had and that many congregations are in trouble because of this. Why is it important to save the synagogue?
IA: This may sound heretical, but I don’t think it is important to save “the (generic)” synagogue. On the other hand, visionary synagogues provide their members with rich, supportive, engaging, stimulating and spiritual communities, communities in which they can live out their deepest Jewish values. That kind of community is definitely worth saving.
sfs: In my experience with groups – any time one person suggests a change, a second person will dig in their heels and want to keep the current practice. How do you introduce change without alienating some of your group?
IA: This is the hardest question of all, because every synagogue, even the most functional, works very well for some of its congregants. These are the congregants likely to be in power, and likely to be the most resistant to change, because, after all, the synagogue meets their needs perfectly. To change a functional synagogue it is helpful to have the support of a project, like HUC’s Experiment in Congregational Education, or Synagogue 3000. The synaogues profiled in Sacred Strategies used these projects as resources, helping them to bring together a diverse, forward looking group of lay leaders, who could inspire their fellow congregants with a more vibrant vision of the future.
sfs: Thanks Isa for taking time out to share your thoughts!